Best Defense

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly discusses C.S. Forester’s ‘The General’

Given the appointment of John Kelly as White House chief of staff on Friday, I thought that people might be interested in reading his account of how a book shaped him as a young officer.



Given the appointment of John Kelly as White House chief of staff on Friday, I thought that people might be interested in reading his account of how a book shaped him as a young officer. This item originally ran on April 21, 2017.

In this excerpt from The Leader’s Bookshelf, retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, now the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, discusses how one book in particular influenced him:

I grew up in a working-class, Roman Catholic, Irish family in Boston. My father worked two jobs, so it didn’t leave him much time for reading because he would leave the house at 5:00 a.m. and wouldn’t come back to the house until midnight. But certainly the nuns and the Christian brothers in my high school had me reading a great deal. I’ve loved history from the very beginning. When I graduated from high school I went on to just a year of college — I wasn’t very interested in it, frankly — and then went into the Merchant Marines for a little over a year. Then I went into the Marine Corps for two years, followed by college at the University of Massachusetts.

When I came back in the Marine Corps as an officer — close to my first days as a second lieutenant — I ran into a fellow named Capt. Ed Wells, a Harvard-educated, upper-crust guy. That first day I knew him he started talking to me about professional reading and how the real professionals read and study their professions. A doctor who doesn’t read peer articles and stay attuned to the developments in his field is not the kind of doctor you would want to go to, and the same is true for officers in the Marine Corps. He got me going on reading, specifically focused on military things, and I just never stopped. When I read a new book I wrote a notation in the front of the book what billet I was in, the date I finished reading it, and where in the world I was.

I first read The General by C. S. Forester when I was a very, very young officer. In a way it changed my life. It’s a post–World War I novel about a man, Curzon, who started out in one of the elite British regiments. In this period in the British Army if you read books you were some kind of a geek. People avoided going to staff colleges or any professional military education; it was all spit and polish. Curzon goes through his career, kind of the perfect British officer, and World War I starts. He is a brave guy, a dedicated guy, a noble guy, but a guy who in the end has become a corps commander — a three-star general — and when presented with an overwhelming German attack couldn’t figure out how to deal with it because he’d never developed himself intellectually. He didn’t know the great lessons of the great master, if you will, and then he just decided one day to go down to his horse, grab his sword, and attack — with the intent of dying.

I’ve read this book every time I got promoted just to remind myself of the effect. I’ve noted where I was when I finished reading it the last time, then when I read it again I will try to remember what it meant to me as a major and, depending on as you get older and higher in rank, it’s a different book every time you read it. When a lieutenant reads that book it’s different from when a lieutenant general reads it. And I think the same is true for every book. So it’s just kind of a fun thing I’ve done over the years and with this book in particular just to remind me of the critical importance of thinking.

Reprinted, by permission, from Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) and R. Manning Ancell, The Leader’s Bookshelf (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, © 2017).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola